Land Disputes Threaten Indigenous Peoples of Rural Brazil
The news began to circulate at the height of the holiday season. On Christmas Day, it emerged that an angry mob in Humaitá, Amazonas, had set fire to offices and equipment belonging to two government institutions: Funai, the National Foundation of the Indian; and Funasa, the National Health Foundation. Cars, boats and motorcycles were destroyed. Two days later, nearly 300 people from the town invaded villages in the Tenharim Marmelos Indigenous Reserve, setting houses alight and destroying the toll booths operated by the Tenharim Indians on a stretch of the Trans-Amazonian Highway that crosses their land. This was the beginning of a series of events which is still underway in the region.
The disturbances are attributed to the disappearance of three local men around a month ago. Humaitá’s residents believe that they were murdered in retribution for the death of the Indian chief Ivan Tenharim, who died in an accident with a motorcycle on the 3rd of December. The Tenharim deny any involvement in the disappearances, and the chief’s family, who are still in mourning, are perplexed by the accusations and the sudden outbreak of violence. Nobody knows what the denouement to the mystery will be, and the police are still none the wiser. Humaitá’s residents insist, however, that those responsible for the disappearances were Tenharim Indians. The fact that the Tenharim community denies any involvement seems to count for nothing.
Reading about this recent case, I couldn’t help but recall another ongoing situation which I have been accompanying in my research for several years: the removal of illegal settlements on the Awá Indigenous Reserve in the state of Maranhão, in Brazil’s northeast region.
The Awá-Guajá people live thousands of kilometres away from the Tenharim Indians, on the other side of the Amazon. What the two communities have in common is that the violence against them has been encouraged by local elites and by local government in the municipalities where their lands are located. The motive for this violence is clear: there are people who want to develop and exploit the indigenous land. There exists a commonly held and deeply ingrained notion that the indigenous lands are unproductive areas, belonging to primitive, even opportunistic people, who do nothing to contribute to the development of the nation. In Humaitá, the Tenharim people are ‘treated like animals’, according to Egon Heck, of the Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI, in its Portuguese acronym).
The Awá-Guajú people are skilled hunters, who have lived for centuries from hunting and gathering. As a result, the recent judicial order to remove illegal settlements from their land has attracted widespread attention in the international press. They have been widely labelled as ‘pure Indians’, or ‘Brazil’s last hunter-gatherers.’ However, this is an essentialist doctrine that designates some communities as more traditional than others; in other words, a simplification ignoring the plurality of Brazil’s indigenous communities, which are scattered across the nation, speak a range of different languages and exhibit a broad range of customs and behaviours.
The growing media interest in the case correlates with increasing hostility on the part of rural elites. The senator Kátia Abreu, president of the National Confederation of Agriculture and Fisheries (CNA), released a statement to the press, rebutting the accusations by the national secretary of Social Articulation of the Secretary General to the President, Paulo Maldos, that the settlers amounted to nothing more than ‘marijuana farmers and loggers.’ If Maldos’s statement is a simplification of the reality in question, this does not make the CNA’s superficial criticisms of the evictions any more valid.
The Awá land is indeed an area in which there is much illicit activity, including illegal logging, illegal appropriation of public land and marijuana cultivation. Between 2009 and 2010 the Awá lands suffered the highest level of deforestation in the Amazon, and according to statistics from Funai’s General Coordination of Territorial Monitoring, it has the highest rates of deforestation of any area in the nine states in the Amazon basin. Furthermore, many rural workers defined by the CNA as ‘poor farmers driven off their lands’ are in fact directly linked to a small group of big landowners and fraudsters who sent them there in order to appropriate the land and sell it off as if it were privately owned. This land continued to be sold to poor families until last year, even after the judicial process authorizing their eviction had been finalized.
For some time now, the tension between indigenous peoples and smallholders in the Amazon region has been stoked up in order to further particular interests. This went on under the military dictatorship, when the ‘demographic voids’ of the Amazon region were offered to whoever was interested in occupying them. It is still going on today, as when the Maranhão branch of the CNA published a statement claiming that the real problem for the smallholders removed from the Awá Indigenous Reserve is the Indians themselves, rather than Brazil’s unequal land distribution, and the agricultural estates, monoculture and rural oligarchies which have rendered Maranhão the poorest state in Brazil.
In recent years, we have been hearing the names Tenharim, Jiahui, Awá-Guajá, Guarani-Caiouá and Munduruku not for positive reasons, but for tragic ones, accompanied almost in real time on the news. And while some of these peoples find their lands under attack, others, such as the Guarani people, who live outside the Amazon region, do not even have any land to defend. They possess only their rage.
Uirá Garcia is an anthropologist. He holds a Ph.D in anthropology from the University of São Paulo, and currently works as a professor at the University of Campinas, where he is working on his post-doctorate. He has worked with the Awá-Guajá people since 2006.
The article was translated into English for LAB by Tom Gatehouse. The article was first published (in Portuguese) in O Estado de S. Paulo
The UK-based charity, Survival International, has long campaigned on behalf of the Awá and should be given much of the credit for the judicial decision to evict settlers from their reserve. More information can be found here.